The Secret Formula To Easily Making Meals That Impress Your Friends
What if I told you there was a secret formula for making the perfect meal?
Professional Chefs don’t think in individual dishes, they think in platforms that turn inexpensive ingredients into consistently great meals. What turns it from an every day dish into a magical meal are a couple tips and tricks on technique along the way.
Here’s the Formula:
Start with Salad
Pick Your Protein
Select Your Starch
Roast a Root
Serve a Sauce
Now if this looks like it’s going to be a mile long list of steps or ingredients, stick with me. This Formula is less of a combination of separate parts and more of a platform to build exceptional meals on, and it works on a budget.
Here’s the Meal:
Seared Chicken Breast
Creamy Mashed Potatoes
Lemon Butter Sauce
Now you might think these are wildly different dishes, but they actually share a ton of ingredients between each dish and with each other. Before we dig in to how to make each of these dishes, let’s cover the principles that underpin this core formula.
Principles for building a phenomenal meal:
Start Light & Serve Small
We can elevate the feeling of a meal by not making our guests feel like they need to be rolled out to their car after dinner
Variety, not portion size is what makes guest feel fancy
Small portions allow you to stretch your dollar, while elevating your guest experience
You may have noticed I didn’t put an appetizer, more often than not, it’s unnecessary and can quickly complicate your meal. If you need to, put some pretzels or salty snacks out for guests. Chips and dip are always a hit. Just remember to think about how they will actually eat it. Everyone loves a caprese salad, but if guests are wandering around the house, it is difficult to eat while standing.
If you have a rich entrée, pair it with a lighter salad or a sweet side
If you have a light entrée, you can pair it with a more hearty or salty salad
They contrast is the key
Think about textures, if you have a soft, slow cooked protein, and a soft starch, think about adding crunch to your salad or roasting a root vegetable to pair it
This takes the pressure off of you from a timing perspective
This lets you “set and forget” the protein, while you work on the
These are typically less expensive cuts of meat
Cold Food, Cold Plate
If you really want to wow your guest, put your salad plates in the freezer for an hour before serving
Additionally, you can put your greens in the freezer for 10 minutes after rinsing them to brighten them up and keep the greens crunchy
Keep It Simple
Since we’re making many dishes, we want to use as few ingredients as possible
Additionally, we want dishes to re-use ingredients as much as possible so we can minimize waste
We want butter, olive oil, salt, and heat to be our primary seasoning agents
Garlic, onion, and shallot are our secondary
Think of Your Friends
The last thing that makes these meals approachable is their flexibility to different palettes
While I personally love seafood, not everyone does
While I enjoy gluten, not everyone can
Sorry vegetarians, I am not a miracle worker
Let’s Get Started with Caesar
I’ll be honest, I’ve never had success making Caesar dressing at home. As a matter of fact, I don’t really like salad all that much. Who remembers a salad anyways? So here’s our first time saving trick, and it’s going to sound like heresy but stick with me: Buy the Bag.
I know, starting a recipe with a recommendation to buy something pre-made, but trust me it works. It will save you a ton of prep time and still be tasty. BUT, if you do this, put the salad plates in the freezer. Dress the salad 10 minutes before serving and put the entire bowl in the freezer as well. This will make people think it’s an amazing homemade salad and no one will think it’s store-bought.
Great! We’re 5 minutes in and we already have one dish down.
Next up is our protein, seared chicken. Now my personal preference is to sous vide the chicken. If you don’t have a sous vide machine or don’t know what that is, stick with me. Sous vide is simply a little machine that keeps water at exactly the temperature you set it out. Why does this matter? YOU LITERALLY CANNOT OVERCOOK YOUR CHICKEN. Nobody likes tough chicken, but every host is afraid of serving raw chicken, meaning most hosts serve overcooked chicken. The sous vide is my secret to saving time and maximizing flavor.
💡 If you don’t have a sous vide, simply cook the chicken breast your favorite way. Grilled or Pan-Roasted would be best with this dish, just as long as it’s not baked or boiled.
Here’s what you do, fill up a pot with water, take your chicken breasts (don’t slice them in half), and get a gallon freezer bag. Throw a couple garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary in the bag with the chicken. You do not need to season the chicken with salt and pepper at this point. Set your temp on your sous vide for 145 degrees and leave it for 1 hour. When the hour is up, take the bag out, and pat dry the chicken. It MUST be super dry! Then when you are ready to serve the meal, get a stainless steel pan super hot, like a 7.5 out of 10. Once the pan is very hot, add a good bit of olive oil, but not a ton (probably a table spoon or two), and sear your chicken for 90 seconds on each side until you get a nice color on it. Don’t over cook the chicken! The sous vide did all the work already! We’re just getting a beautiful color on it! Now for the final critical step. Let it rest for 5 minutes. This actually makes a huge difference and if you don’t do it you’ll ruin all the juiciness we worked so hard for. Once the chicken has rested, slice it for your guests so it will look beautiful on the plate on top of our potatoes. They will be blown away. This also let’s you serve a more appropriate portion. Guests going back for seconds is a sign of success.
Creamy Mashed Potatoes
You’re in the home stretch already and you’ve barely touched the stove.
First get about 1.5-2 lbs of potatoes, depending on your guest list. Yukons are best but any will do (except baker/baking style potatoes, they’re too crumbly). We don’t need to bother peeling the skins, they add flavor and texture anyways and we don’t have time for that. Simply chop the potatoes in half, then those in half, then those remaining pieces in to thirds. They’ll be the size of peanut butter pretzel nuggets.
Get your pot of boiling water and cook them for 10-20 minutes (this is a wide range because each potato is different and I don’t know how big you chopped the pieces), but when you can put a fork in them and they are met with resistance halfway through the piece, you’re done.
Drain the potatoes thoroughly, and put them back into the exact same pot. This is a secret technique Big Restaurant doesn’t want you to know: Cook the potatoes on medium heat with no water for 1-3 minutes and watch as even more liquid evaporates. Any water in the potato, means it’s taking up space that we want our butter and cream to occupy. Once you’re done, we start our seasoning, first with salt and pepper, more salt than you think. Just visualize how much salt your favorite fast food restaurant uses over the same proportion of fries. Next we add our heavy cream and begin to stir. Pour the cream for like 1-2 seconds, we can add more later. It’s probably a quarter to a half cup at this point. Some people prefer to add milk as well to add more smoothness without the richness of heavy cream but it’s your call. We can also add a half stick to an entire stick of butter at this point. Bonus points if it’s already melted but it doesn’t really matter. Continue stirring and breaking up the potatoes until it’s at the texture of your liking. Some people like super smooth potatoes, some like a more rustic texture, it’s up to you. Boom. Potatoes are done and delicious, move them to a back burner on low to keep them warm.
The asparagus is easy. Preheat your oven to 450 WITH the pan in it. Simply cut off the white bits at the bottom, you can do many at once. This is prep work you can even do earlier in the day. Toss the asparagus spears in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Dump them on the pan and cook for 10-14 minutes or until tender. Bonus points for squeezing some lemon on them or adding some grated Italian cheese once their done.
Last thing! Our Sauce!
This one is easy and it even has optional ingredients. First take a tiny bit of olive oil and dice 1-2 shallots finely. You don’t have to but it’s a nice touch. Remember to dice a shallot, first cut off the pointy end and peel the skin off. Then, turn the shallot and make cuts that don’t quite go all the way through it, longways. These cuts are perpendicular to the main way you’re going to cut it. 4-5 cuts are good. Then use thin cuts and watch as it falls into beautiful diced pieces. You can also add 1-3 garlic cloves and cook the same way, just make sure they don’t burn. Once your shallots cook on medium heat for a few minutes, add half a stick of butter and turn the heat down to like 3.5 or so. As the butter melts, squeeze the juice of half a lemon in and stir it all together. You can add a splash of chicken stock if you want to beef it up a bit but it’s not necessary.
Now I wrote this guide in the order of the formula, but when cooking for a party, I would actually cook it slightly differently so that all the food comes out hot at the same time.
Here’s the order I would cook this:
First sous vide the chicken an hour before serving
Then make the mashed potatoes, this will take the most “hands-on” time, don’t forget to factor in the time to let the water come up to a boil, these can sit on low heat forever so it’s okay if we finish early
Then prep the asparagus, but don’t roast it until 15 min before serving
Pull the chicken out of the sous vide
Toss the asparagus in to roast, if it finishes too soon, cut the heat on the oven, let it sit at room temp for 5 min, then throw into the warm oven until time to serve
Dress and freeze the salad and plates
Sear the chicken, let it rest, and slice
Okay so here’s our full ingredient list
Bag Caesar Salad Mix
8 Steps, 10 ingredients, and 1 hour for a gourmet meal! Not bad!!
If you enjoyed this formula for making great dishes and want another recipe like it, vote on which meal you’d like me to do next.
Ribeye Steak (or your favorite cut)
Roasted Honey Carrots
Slow Cooked Short rib
Balsamic Berry Agrodolce
I hope you enjoyed this departure from my normal content. I’m not a food blogger, but it’s always fun sharing what I’ve learned in all aspects of life with others.